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By Tom Shroder
Sunday, February 8, 2009

Of the many hundreds of short stories submitted for our first Valentine's fiction contest two years ago, prompted by a photograph of a beautiful woman talking on the phone, a surprising number began almost exactly the same way: "Ring . . . ring . . . ring!"

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Those were easy to cull, if only because effective short stories require such extreme compression that no time can be wasted on the obvious. Others were cut for failing to distinguish themselves from the pack. When the same plot twist shows up in a dozen entries in a row, it's pretty clear that, whatever the virtues of the stories, they aren't acts of exceptional imagination. When 1,000 writers react to the same photograph, the winner necessarily must see something in the picture nobody else can see.

Our readers are quick learners. In the second year of the contest, nearly all the entries avoided the instant disqualifiers. Which meant that the judges, namely yours truly and articles editor David Rowell, were forced to read most of them to the end, almost 100 hours' worth between the two of us, not that we are complaining. For the most part, the stories bristled with imagination: tales of a barmaid who slipped a love potion to an unsuspecting customer; a pair of lovers who would glimpse their future in the lives of an aging couple at a ramshackle motel; a couple living a mean life in urban India to whom a calendar photo of an American car cruising a Western highway represented some mythic future where life would be easier.

Most of the entries quite reasonably focused on the two people in the front seat of the vintage car. Who were they? How did they get there? Where were they going? But the winner, Sam Esquith, 30, an English teacher living in Middleburg, found a different path to originality. He didn't focus so much on the couple in the front seat, but on the invisible presence observing them from the back seat. It seemed a very clever trick to me, though Esquith, who has taught creative writing at Northern Virginia Community College, shrugged off the compliment. "It's an old creative writing exercise," he said. "You imagine you are the point of view in the photograph, the eye behind the camera."

It's a smart exercise. But it's not what made Esquith the second winner of our Valentine's fiction contest. That would be the authenticity of the characters, the minimum number of words that said a maximum amount about the relationship of a 16-year-old boy trying to become a man and his distant, intellectual father. The only ringing in this piece was the ring of truth.

Tom Shroder can be reached at shrodert@washpost.com.


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